The Real World

Most Things are Terrible: My Optimism

(Content warning: Deep, all-encompassing pessimism. If you read to the end I promise a deep kernel of optimism as a reward.)

I’m often accused of being naively optimistic. Not so! I, too, believe that mostly everything is terrible. More precisely: Almost everything is false; almost everything is suffering; almost everything is bad; almost no-one is evil; on and on and on.

Nonetheless, I am deeply optimistic about life and the world.

Let me explain.

Reasons for Pessimism

There are numerous places to find justified pessimism in life.

Almost Everything is False

Suppose you want to describe something true about, say, a dog. You might use the following sentence structure:

A dog is a [noun]

Now fill the placeholder [noun] with something. If you try really hard, you might think up 10 or 100 nouns that make the sentence true before you (and your list) become exhausted:

A dog is a mammal, a descendent of wolves, a furry four-legged creature, a good boy… and so on.

But for the incredibly vast majority of things you might say, the sentence will be false:

A dog is a cat (NO)

A dog is a bowl of applesauce (NO)

A dog is an advanced alien race sent to destroy humans (PROBABLY NO)

Nor is a dog a bowl, a 10-legged mammal, a flightless bird, a wristwatch, a bicycle, or a billion other things. Based on my totally made-up numbers, the probability that a randomly selected fact you think about dogs is true is 100/billion = 10^{-7}. I’m confident that this made-up number is both way off and extremely optimistic. (Eliezer Yudkowski gives a mathematically rigorous example with a probability of the same order of magnitude.) It’s hard to find a true fact.

Or, maybe, a less silly example:

A dog is a member of kingdom Animalia, Phylum Chordata, Class Mammalia, Order Carnivora, and Family Felidae (SO CLOSE, BUT NO)

In fact, 4 of these 5 classifications are correct, but a dog is instead a member of Family Canidae (if you’re keeping score, Felidae is for cats). “And” is dangerous. You can be 99% correct and still the conjunction of your statements will be incorrect as a whole. In fact most of what we believe to be propositional knowledge consists in complicated conjunctions of not-so-well-defined substatements, any part of which could be false and invalidate the whole edifice.

That’s life. Almost anything you can say, almost anything you can think, is false. It is for this reason that the cliché advice to “not believe everything you hear” is extremely useful. Exempting some kind of miracle of lucky encounters, if I decide to accept whatever I hear or read, the vast majority of what I believe will be false.

It gets worse. Suppose you consider at random some belief you already think is true. Do you even remember how you came to believe it? What line of evidence and reasoning brought you there (if such a line even exists)? Maybe you’re pretty good at sorting true from false, but are you good at a 10^{-7} level? (Remember: your real odds are probably worse than this!) For my part, I’m sure that I’m not. Probably many things I believe are false too. It’s just math.

Almost Everything is Suffering

This point almost sells itself, but I’ll make the case for it anyway by giving a wide range of examples.

Many major religions agree on this as a fundamental (or even central) truth. For example, suffering in Buddhism is enshrined one of the Three Marks of Existence, or Universal Characteristics. What makes us suffer is not some evil forced upon us by the world, but merely the character of our own experience, our tendency to not pay attention to the present and instead to desire something different. Along with impermanence and lack of self, suffering pervades the conscious lives of both the miserable and those who are ostensibly happy. In short, Buddhism teaching that suffering is merely a property of consciousness.

In Christianity, suffering is punishment for the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. The usual examples from the Old Testament are the pain of childbirth (for women) or hard work in the fields (for men), but human sin is also offered quite often as an explanation for the horrific things that happen in the world today. I don’t know if this “explanation” is supposed to make me feel better about these facts (it for sure doesn’t), but the existence of horrors in need of an explanation is also a point in favor of the “life is suffering” hypothesis. To self-avowed not-quite-but-sorta-Christian Jordan Peterson, “there is no more basic, irrefutable truth“, and more specifically, that at its core “Being is suffering tainted by malevolence.”

Many who reject religion completely also agree on this point. Among the New Atheists, Sam Harris also grounds his conception of the Moral Landscape in the idea that suffering constitutes the most salient moral absolute there is. In the complex, multidimensional ethical world we navigate as a species, we all agree at a basic, guttural level that the worst possible suffering for everyone is a bad world, a world worth avoiding; and we also accept that we lie on some spectrum between this horrific imagined suffering and a possible utopian heaven-on-Earth. Importantly, though, we know suffering (hell) better than we know utopia (heaven). We’re in some sense closer to the idea of suffering, more moved by it, more familiar with it; humans disagree vehemently about what utopia might be worth having but agree fully on what suffering we need to avoid. We don’t know how good the world might get in some amazing possible future, but we for sure know what the worst suffering might be like.

Almost Everything is Bad

…morally wrong, that is.

Most things you could decide to do will not be upheld by your preferred ethical framework, whatever that might be. This point will be more contentious, because different ethical traditions famously do not generally agree on which principles of morality are the correct ones. But taken in a general way, the fact that it is really hard to be an ethical person is pretty much agreed upon.

Again, from the Bible:

“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Matthew 7:13-14, KJV

And the Tao Te Ching:

In my deeds, there is the Way of Tao.

Because people do not understand these,

Therefore they do not understand me.

Those who know me are few.

Chapter 70

I know a lot less about Judaism, but following the 613 Commandments of the Torah, as interpreted by centuries of Rabbinical tradition, doesn’t sound very easy to me. (I know even less about Islam but I don’t think it’s any simpler.) ((There are many other religions that I know even more lesser about, so I won’t comment on them.)) More generally, religions are notorious for having lots of difficult, and seemingly arbitrary, rules that are extremely hard to follow to a T.

And in a way, religions represent the more forgiving case here! Often, if you can follow the large-but-finite set of agreed-upon rules from the Holy Book, then what you do beyond that is considered nobody’s business but your own. At least they’re written down (kind of)! Christianity does not, for example, have a stance on whether you should eat a delicious ice cream cone on your day off; you can if you want to. And in many religions there is a notion of mercy: you’ll make mistakes, but we’ll let it go if you try harder next time.

To go beyond religion it will be useful to discuss two important schools of thought in not-explicitly-religious studies of ethics: Deontology and Consequentialism. Neither is very forgiving. Consequentialism, more specifically Utilitarianism, is concerned with maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures like humans. Maximizing is a key word here. You don’t get to do a little bit of good and then retreat to your comfortable life; you have to cope with the fact of whatever suffering actually exists, potentially across all conscious beings that you could in fact be helping. At its extreme, Peter Singer shows up to knock the ice cream cone out of your hand, telling you that that money should have been used to help a poor villager in the developing world who is dying of malaria. (And it’s kind of hard to say he’s wrong…)

Deontology, the idea that moral rules are Absolute and Without Exception, is not more forgiving. Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most famous True-Believer Deontologist, discusses a thought experiment that gets to the point: an axe murderer at your door, looking for your friend who you have hidden in your house. If Lying Is Wrong, you must (ethically) tell the truth and give up your friend to the murderer. And if lying isn’t your Deontological pet peeve, don’t worry; you can choose your favorite absolute principle, and people will happily come out of the woodwork to describe some equally horrific thought experiment. Life is hard for Deontologists (and Utilitarians too).

(And yes, I’m oversimplifying both religious and philosophical thought to make my point. Of course, there are weaker forms of Utilitarian or Deontological ethics, as well as more liveable versions of religious teachings; I’m just saying (1) that most people, at least based on what they say, live by some version of an ethical code the requires a lot of them; and (2) that whatever your ethical leanings, there are people ostensibly on your side that see most of what you’re doing as Bad, even if you do not. I don’t question at all people’s ability to convince themselves that they are Good People even when they sell out their most cherished principles. More on this in the next section.)

In short: the vast majority of ethical teachings, religious or otherwise, describe morality as a narrow path defined by a difficult set of principles or rules. It’s difficult to maximize the Good, whether that Good be God’s favor, an absolute Deontological principle, or Utilitarian well-being.

A seeming exception is something like Hedonism, the idea that what is ethical is that which gives you the greatest pleasure in the present moment. But actually, carried to its logical conclusion, most things you can do from a Hedonistic perspective are Bad too. The acts bringing about the greatest pleasure must also be carefully selected. “Narrow is the way” for Hedonists too.

A more serious exception is full-on moral nihilism, which in its pure form holds that nothing matters and so anything is permissible. There’s more to say, but for now it seems sufficient to point out that although a nihilistic world won’t “get you” for being less-than-perfectly moral, it hardly seems like a world naturally suited for an optimistic outlook.

Almost No One is Evil

The tagline of Jaibot’s (very good) blog is: “Almost No One is Evil. Almost Everything is Broken.” I think this carries a lot of wisdom and it comes to mind often. It sounds like optimism followed by pessimism–something like “We’re trying our best, but come up short at times” fits pretty well–but I think at leading order it’s (pessimistic)^2.

The world is, in point of fact, full of evil in the form of destruction and suffering (see above), and it might actually be refreshing if we could just blame a few Evildoers for these horrors. At least, then the path forward would be clearer: oust the Evildoers, build a big wall around your fortress or garden and suffering will be banished. But the fact is that nobody is the villain of their own story; we all believe, on some level, that what we are doing is admissible, if not fully moral.

Jaibot’s tagline is (pessimistic)^2, I think, because it implies (correctly) that even in the absence of human evil, the Universe is not kind to us. Recall Peterson again: “Being is suffering tainted by malevolence” (emphasis mine). Even without the malevolence of Evildoers, life is still suffering. Even if everyone acted properly in a moral way, we have to face up to the reality of a world that does not seem to care about us. Famine, disease, and natural disasters are among the most natural occurrences one can fathom, and for most of human history, humanity has had very little recourse against them. The Four Horsemen have been running roughshod over humans for hundreds of thousands of years; they welcome our malevolence but they don’t need it.

Misc. Other Pessimisms

Most people won’t (and shouldn’t) be my friend

Select a person at random from the (as of this writing) 7.7 billion people on the planet. Most, of course, don’t live near enough to me for us to meet up regularly. But even if we did, most don’t speak my language. Most of them are much older or much younger than me, have different interests, have conflicting cultural attitudes compared to mine. Odds are, select a person at random and we’d make terrible friends.

For romantic interests, it’s even harder, because (especially in the modern West) we ask so much of our partners. They have to be our lover, our confidant, our best friend, our travel companion, and a great parent to our children. But lust, romantic love and attachment don’t always go together. This is an extremely high bar that almost no-one in the world can reach.

I’ll never do most things

If I’m fortunate, I’ll get to spend a total of 100 years on this planet. That sounds like a lot, but considering how many things there are to do, I won’t be able to do even a tiny fraction of them.

If I read 50 books a year–and that’s a very difficult goal–then starting when I was 20 I might be able to read 80*50=4000 books if I live to be 100. For reference, there are 600,000-1 million books published per year in the US alone. I’ll never make a dent. Similarly, if I spend an hour a day practicing piano, I can hope to achieve a high level of piano proficiency, but still be unable to play the tuba, or violin, or theremin. I study physics at a high level, but in doing so have neglected biology, US history, and underwater basket weaving as academic disciplines I might have been interested in. If I work hard every day to be productive, doing new things all the time, I’ll still never scratch the surface of any discipline. Even a so-called Renaissance Man, dabbling in many things, only has a very finite reach. In the modern world, there are no real polymaths left.

Partly for this reason…

Someone is always better than me

No matter what I do. I know I can’t do everything, but even in the narrow sphere of what I consider myself proficient in (physics, piano, and 50 books per year in the previous examples), someone else will be better. This, because (1) talent, motivation, and opportunity are unequally distributed (both biologically and culturally); and (2) there are so many people that it is extremely probable that I lie near the center of the distribution, far from the far-right tail. So as hard as I might work, I’ll never be Einstein for physics, or Mozart for piano, or Cowen for book-reading (who is quoted as saying he often reads “a few books in an evening“). I cannot now, nor will I ever, live up to that expectation.

Why I’m Still Optimistic

All of the above seems to point to a terrible world: a world in which whatever matters is far away and difficult to attain; in which the Four Horsemen are capable of destroying us even if we get our act together; in which I don’t matter, I’m not unique, I may never find my calling; in which hell is closer than heaven as people suffer horrific famine and violence daily. It’s not that I disagree with any of this; I wrote this post to be convincing, not least to myself!

Why have a positive outlook in such a world?

All the horrors I described above exist in the world we live in, granted. But what did you expect? You were born without choice about what you are or where you are, without a say about what the world should be. Does the world owe you perfection? The world owes us nothing, and so the fact that anyone gets to live a comfortable life should be treated as a miracle worth acknowledging. If we had been born into the worst kind of hell imaginable, then alright, that’s where we’d live. But we didn’t! Far from it! For me, this thought fills me with enough of a seed of gratefulness to get me out of the fetal position.

…but let’s do better.

Voltaire famously roasts naive optimism, as personified by Dr. Pangloss, in the brilliant Candide. Pangloss’s mantra asserts that we live in “the best of all possible worlds“, which seems to patently miss the point given the imminent terribleness of this world. Still, as bad as the world can be, it’s better than we deserve, and we further find ourselves in a position to make it better tomorrow than it was yesterday. It’s worthwhile to make it better! As Nate Soares says:

[D]on’t let despair or hopelessness weigh you down. Instead, let them be a reminder: those are feelings you can only get from something worth saving. There are things here that are worth fighting for. If you begin to despair, then let that feeling be a reminder of what could be, and let everything that this world isn’t be your fuel.

I think this is beautifully said, and totally correct. We don’t live in the best possible world, but maybe we can work to make it so.

Almost everything is false… but some things are true! And it’s possible, at least in principle, to discover these truths. This was not promised to us, and could have been another way. But we have inherited a faculty of reason, and throughout history we have gotten better and better at crafting new tools that help us investigate the world around us, tools like microscopes and telescopes but also more basic tools like mathematics and language. It is amazing that we can know things, and that some of the things we currently believe might actually be true. We weren’t promised such abilities, and for sure you and I didn’t earn them. It’s a gift we give to tomorrow.

Almost everything is suffering… but some things are not! On the Moral Landscape, we may be closer to hell than heaven, but we are still far from the worst hell we imagine. And our trajectory is up, as many things we care about are getting better all the time! World poverty is declining; violence is decreasing year after year; after millennia of struggle, today we produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet. Of course, there are still huge problems to solve: disease, inequality, existential risk are just a few. They are hard, and they could have been intractable, yet they do not seem to be; we have conquered diseases in the past and will again in the future. Once distribution issues are figured out, very likely no-one will ever go hungry again; we can slay these demons for good. That’s in our grasp!

And sure, almost everything is bad… ok. It’s hard to know what is right, let alone to do what is right. But my best bet for an absolute moral law in this crazy, mixed up world is to just Do Your Best, which is by definition possible for everyone. It’s extremely hard work that never ends, but it’s all any of us can offer. And a world in which we all do what we can is a world much better than the one we currently inhabit. That’s in our grasp too.

Almost no-one is my friend, but some are! I’ll never do most things, but I’m blessed to experience those few things I’m able to do, thanks to the twin mysteries of conscious awareness and the apparent arrow of time, which I neither understand nor am responsible for. Someone is always better than me, but that’s ok, I don’t have to be the best to contribute something useful.

In light of all that is wrong with the world, it’s hard to argue that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But we have been blessed by a world much better than we deserve. We live in a world worth living in. And it can be better; with all its faults, it’s a world worth saving. Most days, that’s good enough to keep a smile on my face and an optimistic outlook in my heart.

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